Vt. family who lost daughter to opioids seeks involuntary commitment law

Published: Mar. 5, 2020 at 7:03 PM EST
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A Vermont family who lost a daughter to opioid addiction is pushing for an involuntary commitment law that would force drug users into treatment, but critics say such forced treatment doesn't work and raises serious civil liberties issues.

Christina Decato believes if she could have forced her daughter, Aislinne, to get help with her addiction, she might still be alive today. "We did everything we could," Decato said.

Aislinne died last April. She used heroin for close to five years before finally getting the help she needed to get clean. "She made the active decision not to want to die," Decato said.

But her decision came too late. After years of drug use, complications with type 1 diabetes, and a devastating fall on the ice, Aislinne's body could not recover. "She ended up Easter Sunday going into a diabetic coma. She never woke up," Decato said. Aislinne was 27.

The family feels if they could have forced her into treatment sooner, she might have survived. And they point to the story of another family member. "The Section 35 law in Massachusetts has a personal connection to me because my daughter is a heroin addict," Decato said.

Christina's aunt has a daughter who is now in recovery after struggling with addiction for 11 years. The family says the difference for her was living in Massachusetts. "That Section 35 law Massachusetts did save her life more than one time over the span of several years," Decato said.

Section 35 allows families, doctors or police to petition a court to involuntarily commit suspected drug abusers to an in-patient treatment facility. The Bay State is one of dozens across the country with a similar law. "I feel she wouldn't be here with us today without that," Decato said. She says her daughter was not capable of getting herself into treatment and she felt she exhausted all other means to try and help.

But some in the Vermont Recovery Community aren't sure involuntary drug treatment is the answer."Vermont has never been a state that's been great for having forced treatment," said Gary DeCarolis from the Turning Point Center in Burlington. He says he can understand why a family would make the case for it. "At the same time, I also understand from my years of experience that forced treatment doesn't work."

Numerous studies question the success rate of forced treatment, in part because doctors say patients are more likely to stay clean if they get treatment willingly.

In Vermont, there is also a question of where the treatment would occur. There are only three in-patient facilities in Vermont which typically offer up to 21 days in treatment. Massachusetts has over 600 in-patient beds and the average length of stay ranges up to 49 days.

DeCarolis believes with the short term treatment options Vermont has available, it doesn't allow a user to fully recover and avoid returning to cycles of using. "Every time someone fails -- so to speak -- in terms of a relapse, they feel less and less hopeful," DeCarolis said.

Vermont health officials would not talk to us about the issue of involuntary commitment. But it's important to note that Vermont's primary drug treatment model is not centered around in-patient treatment. The state's hub and spoke model includes intensive out-patient treatment, which involves administering replacement drugs like methadone and buprenorphine. Many experts agree medication assisted treatment is the most effective way to treat drug addiction.

Decato isn't arguing against the current system, but says she wants to give families another option that could save their loved ones lives. "This is a law that that'll help families. And as we said before, we don't want to infringe, but if they're in danger to themselves and they're not thinking clearly, then somebody else needs to step up for their benefit," Decato said. "Nobody wants to lose their child."

The bill is in the Vt. House's Human Services Committee but lawmakers say it's unlikely to be discussed this session.

There are other cases where involuntary commitment is used, including mental health, but the bar is pretty high to force someone into treatment. That's because there are concerns about abusing someone's civil liberties. And that has been an issue for this law across the country. ACLU officials say the proposal raises some serious due process and practical concerns and they would not support it moving forward.